That Kind of Mother

by Rumaan Alam

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 358

In his novel about interracial adoption, the primary theme that Rumaan Alam explores is the nature of maternal love. By extension, he offers the theme of how to define a family. In positing a situation where a white mother adopts a black infant, Alam also raises the theme of the complexity of US racial relations. Hesuggests a scenario in which two mothers apparently become friends, but the relationship changes when one becomes the other’s employer. The novel encourages the reader to wonder about the affective bonds between people when race and economic status are unequal but parental status is the same.

The basic premise is that two women who have become friends become mothers at roughly the same time. For the white woman, Rebecca, her son, Jacob, is her first child. Her husband, Christopher, is white and British. The African American woman, Priscilla, already has an adult daughter, Cheryl, who in turn has recently had a baby daughter, Ivy. First the women’s friendship takes a turn when Rebecca hires Priscilla to be her baby’s nanny. Soon after this, Priscilla becomes pregnant and then, tragically, dies in childbirth. The baby’s father remains unknown. After considerable reflection, Cheryl agrees to let Rebecca initially foster and then adopt her half-brother, Andrew. The two families manage these transitions amicably, suggesting that affectionate personal relationships between individuals can offset the harmful effects of living in racist society.

As Andrew, Jacob, and Ivy grow up, the families socialize but their situations increasingly diverge. Rebecca has been isolated from the daily realities of racism and finds it hard to accept the severity of their impact. Her vocation is poet, and she spends much of her time alone and writing. The idea of offering a good, secure home to an African American child had appealed to her. The author suggests both that Rebecca is sincere in her love for the baby and that she is naïvely operating from a position of white privilege. Through the course of the novel, she reluctantly learns some of these hard truths, such as when Andrew’s teachers discriminate against him but refuse to admit it.

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